"Where are you from?”
It’s a simple question, but for years, I answered with some variation of, “I was born and raised in Nashville.” It wasn’t until college that I began to question this.
As a freshman, I went with a friend to a black community welcoming event. Other than family gatherings, being in a majority black space was rare for me. I had never seen so many people immersed in their culture, all different but united by shared experiences.
An upperclassman sparked a conversation with us, and as expected, the casual, “Where are you from?” question came up. But in this setting, an answer I had used for years suddenly seemed wrong.
“Oh, well, Nashville?” I answered, sounding like I asked it myself. “I don’t know anything past my great-grandparents.”
He then turned to my friend and asked more about her origins. But unlike me, she, a first-generation black American, knew everything.
In that moment, I finally faced one fact: I’m 20 years old, and I know nothing about myself.
I couldn’t build one generation of my family tree without asking my parents for help. Even then, we couldn’t get past the 20th century.
Studying abroad, I thought, would help me find my identity. I hoped that spending a month in London — one of the world’s most diverse cities — putting together a class documentary would be a way of finding myself.
Little did I know I’d instead become the center of attention for many tourists and foreigners, and the experience would only complicate my own understanding of myself.
During our first day in London, my friend and I listed all the tourist attractions we wanted to visit. But we didn’t expect to become the focus of unwanted eyes ourselves. As we met up with our professor to talk about our projects, two middle-aged tourists interrupted our discussion.
They asked us directions to the closest museum. When we tried to explain our lack of familiarity with the area, they focused on my appearance instead.
“I like your style,” one woman said twice, taking in my features as if I was Big Ben right down the street.
Before she asked for our permission to snap a few shots, the elderly tourist already had her smartphone ready, focusing on my blonde box braids and my friend’s brown ones. We looked at each other and our professor, trying to escape the uncomfortable situation.
I still wonder where those photos went. Maybe they ended up on Facebook. My friend joked that we probably became the models of the women’s braiding hair company, stacked on the shelves of some rundown beauty supply store in who knows where. Or maybe they stayed in perfect secrecy on her phone album, only pulled out at family gatherings along with photos of London Bridge, Buckingham Palace and other objects of amazement.
Although I stood out in areas like West London, in Peckham I fell right into the crowd. As I traveled with my friends to this predominantly black community, the amount of black people around us grew. More black Britons — the elderly slinging the results of a full shopping day, those trying to get a quick lunch during break and others — climbed onto the double-decker bus with me.
Peckham was its own little world from the moment I entered.
Fruits I had never seen met my eyes for the first time. The smells of Jamaican jerk chicken, jollof rice and raw fish at markets all hit my nose in a frenzy. Peckham residents indulged in the samples offered by vendors negotiating prices.
They all seemed immersed in one setting that I struggled to join. All this culture welcomed me with a gracious hand, but I stayed with what I knew best. My trip ended by finishing cheeseburgers and fries too greasy for even my American stomach.
There’s a sense of feigned comfort in being around groups of first-generation members of the African diaspora. My answers on the census, my experiences with the police and my features make us one in the same. But in spaces like this, cultural divisions become obvious. I wish I could step over these boundaries, but it takes more than one life to wipe away schisms that have been in the world’s fabric for centuries.
But there is one moment in this hectic month that wrapped my experiences up in a bow.
I visited a bookstore that sold books from around the world. Despite the range of books around me, I found myself gravitating towards ones from America. I pulled out “James Baldwin: The Last Interview and Other Conversations.” In one interview, Baldwin discussed America’s impact on the black psyche and his life abroad.
“All you are ever told in this country about being black is that it is a terrible, terrible thing to be,” Baldwin said. “You have to decide who you are and force the world to deal with you, not with its idea of you.”
This experience served as a metaphor for my existence. I was across the Atlantic Ocean, thousands of miles from home, but I couldn’t break past my upbringing. My identity as a black American still impacted my experiences abroad. No matter how hard I tried to break from this mold, I still let my past consume me.
I left Heathrow Airport in as much confusion about my identity as I had when touching down a month before.
Editor’s Note: The Daily Texan’s Helen M. Powell Traveling Scholarship gives one current or ex-staff member the opportunity to travel and report outside of Austin.